Baltimore and the threshold of violence

credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

We pray for the safety and well-being of everyone in Baltimore and  a restoration to order and détente.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Calling all peacemakers!  We need calm and reasonable discourse.

This past Sunday, I preached a “pastoral” sermon on thresholds and alarms.  It was a sermon aimed at our day-to-day spiritual journey.  For those of you who heard it the following remarks will likely make more sense. For those of you who have not, you can hear it under the sermons tab.  In that sermon I offered a simple aphorism:  “be aware of thresholds and alarms [that go off at thresholds].”  So with that in mind let me make a remark or two about what is transpiring in Baltimore.

A riot is a threshold and an alarm.    Of course, at even a superficial level we understand this when we see stores looted and burned, cars burned and police officers hurt by debris thrown at them.  But I mean this statement at a deeper level. It is a commentary on our society at the moment.  A riot is a striking sign that something is wrong with us collectively.  I do not mean by that statement that those individuals who harm and destroy are not to be held responsible.  What I do mean is that a riot is a societal disruption along the lines of a stroke in an individual.  We can all grasp that of course because we have known someone who has had a stroke or heart attack and then must deal with what that event means across a continuum of any number of issues in their lives (diet, stress, exercise, genetic makeup so on and so forth).  It would be a foolish conclusion if we as a nation decided to read these events as mere morality plays.  A riot is a threshold and alarm and we need to find people of good will all along the continuum who can begin helping us sort out the factors and ingredients that led to this.

There are plenty of failures and yes, some of those failures are individual or familial ones. So we need to talk about the failure of parenting no doubt.  But there are large, looming failures of our national policies and rhetoric that dwarf those failures that play out in individuals.   One individual, for example, stealing a loaf of bread from a store is an example of theft but a system, like segregation, stole the educations and dignity of millions of persons. You can see the point.  We can and should talk about individual responsibility and failure, but a riot is a threshold that an entire community and nation crosses and the alarms are warning us to speak to those societal and national policies that deprive persons of hope and freedom.

Wars are violent, riots are violent and both should be avoided.  We will hear a lot of sanctimonious language about peace and civility in the coming days from talking heads who have given voice to wars and promoted preemptive attacks against people who did not attack us.  One must pause in such discourse and ask such persons why they are so comfortable with violence in one arena but so opposed to it in another. There are differences between wars and riots but America has glorified violence too often as a solution.  And rioters need to hear this as much as any right wing talking head:  violence is not a solution. In fact, as I already stated, it is a sign of failure of a people to find a common path toward mutual regard.  Let’s talk about those rioters but let’s spend some time on the threshold and ponder how repeated incidents of police beatings and killings of unarmed civilians, along with desperate economic contexts push people over a threshold into something as self-destructive and ineffective as a riot.  I’ll close with Dr. King’s words in Stride Toward Freedom:  “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself.”  We have crossed a threshold. An alarm is sounding for us to step up with courage and find a way toward one another.